Back in March, incumbent Margaret Moore suffered a humbling setback as she came in second in the Democratic primary for Travis County district attorney, forcing a runoff between the top two candidates in the field of three. The top vote-earner, José Garza, executive director of the Workers Defense Project, comes from a background in criminal defense and has run to Moore’s left, joining a wave of progressive prosecutors, including Chesa Boudin in San Francisco and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, that has swept into office since 2018. Garza’s platform includes ending the cash bail system and prosecution for low-level drug offenses. He has received national funding and endorsements from high-profile political leaders including Julián and Joaquin Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. The winner of the runoff is an overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November over Republican Martin Harry, an Austin attorney.
At the time of the March 3 vote, the coronavirus pandemic had yet to affect daily life in America in a substantial way, and the Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped the nation since the police killing of George Floyd had yet to begin. Recent high-profile police brutality cases in Austin—including the shooting of Mike Ramos, who was unarmed, by police in late April—have brought new energy to demands for criminal justice reform, including in the district attorney’s race. Moore says that she understands why protesters direct their frustration with systemic issues toward prosecutors and police, but also defends the system they’re frustrated with. “It works to the best extent that human beings can make it work,” she says.
Moore spoke with Texas Monthly at length about the election and her record. This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
Texas Monthly: What do you think the early vote turnout means for your campaign?
Margaret Moore: I think that anyone who tries to make predictions in this environment is very foolish. It is so unprecedented that I just have no idea. I look forward to seeing the results tomorrow evening.
TM: Have the protests since the death of George Floyd shifted your thoughts about the role of the district attorney here?
MM: I don’t see a difference in the role as the district attorney. To me, the bigger change has not been Black Lives Matter since George Floyd’s death, because, frankly, I came into this job already attuned to racial disparities in the criminal justice system. What I have seen in my first term is there’s been the emergence of this national movement to replace incumbent district attorneys with DAs who preferably have no experience as a prosecutor and who subscribe to the national agenda that was exemplified by folks like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia.
TM: Has the protest movement had an impact on you personally?
MM: I grew up highly sensitized to racial issues. This is the latest iteration of the struggle that I’ve been watching my whole life. I came out of retirement and ran for district attorney [in 2016] to address the distrust of our minority community in the criminal justice system. The protests make it an even more intense environment in which to pursue that mission.
I do believe that we are all better off having a criminal justice system. And I also know from personal observation that violent crimes, and property crime, disproportionately impact minorities in low-income communities. So there’s related issues in my mind as to how the police handle law enforcement in general, which disproportionately occurs with minorities in low income communities, and how we handle the interaction of law enforcement with those communities.
TM: Do you think that the protesters who have been demonstrating for the past six weeks understand what you’ve done to try to address their concerns?
MM: I don’t think they have that knowledge.
TM: What knowledge do you want them to have?
MM: Well, I would have liked them to know, number one, it was—and is—an extremely high priority in our office, for me personally and for the people I hired to create and establish policy for what is now our civil rights unit [in 2017].
I’d like them to know that we have to work within the legal context that the legislature has given us. When you are dealing with the [police officer’s] defense that the use of force is justified, which has been present in every case that we’ve had, you should know that your prosecutor, by law, has to prove that the use of force was not justified beyond a reasonable doubt, which is very hard to do. We have the prosecutorial experience to understand what that burden means, and what kind of proof it would take to overcome it. When the defendant is a police officer, these are difficult cases. They just are. Whether an officer is or is not indicted cannot be guaranteed by a prosecutor.
TM: When I speak to activists, a lot of them are frustrated that a case like Mike Ramos has taken so long—
MM: [Laughs] Mike Ramos just happened at the end of April!
TM: I think that people feel like there’s a—
MM: You can’t even get an ME [medical examiner] report… [laughs] I’m sorry I laugh, but you know, there is—I’m sorry, for us to handle these cases thoroughly takes time. And any shortcuts in these cases will seriously undermine the credibility of the investigation. And that’s a fact. Any homicide case takes time.
That frustration is fomented by those who do not understand the system. At all. Who do not understand what it takes to put together these investigations. They don’t understand that we have to wait for medical examiner reports. We have to, in many instances, wait for ballistics reports. Sometimes we have to wait for DNA analysis. We’ve got to get witness statements. We’ve got to review video. Sometimes we’ve got to get experts who can talk to us about the reasonableness of the force. So all of these things have to be done and they have to be done with a great deal of thoroughness.
Just to give you an example. We did take two Austin police officers to trial in a use of force case last year, and they were charged with several offenses surrounding the use of a Taser on an individual who was kneeling on the ground with his hands in the air. And when that incident occurred, we had a seated grand jury and we did indict that case in a relatively short time.
One of the key points raised by the defense was the rush to judgment. They cross-examined the detectives who were charged with this investigation mercilessly about all the things they didn’t do before the indictment was returned. The [defendants] walked. I’m not saying that’s the only reason the jury found them not guilty, but it was one factor in the overall picture painted that these officers were just political victims. So we know we have to leave no stone unturned in cases that we plan to present. And so, in the case of Mr. Ramos, frankly, to get that case presented in August, when the incident occurred at the end of April, is a very short timeframe.
TM: You mentioned Larry Krasner and the “progressive prosecutor” model. Is that a model you agree with?
MM: I agree with the objectives. The Larry Krasner policy memo has in it “end cash bail.” Do you know what that means?
TM: I do.
MM: Tell me.
TM: It means that you would release everyone on personal bonds.
MM: We release about 70 percent of the people who come through our system. And I think it’s a pretty healthy percentage. What’s left in our jail right now are exactly what people refer to when they say, “Well, you know, but we don’t want, when it comes to public safety, we should try to keep people safe, right?” We’ve done that in Travis County to the extent that you can do it. We have the model and we’ve fine-tuned that model and we’ve got more possibilities in the works to possibly make it even better. And DAs don’t set bail amounts. What we do is we look at a case and if the defense lawyer or the judge or someone says, “can he go ahead and get out on bond?”—we can make a decision. And most of the time we agree to it.
TM: You’ve worked with activist groups on drug prosecution reforms that ended with those groups ultimately leaving the table. What happened?
MM: What I’ve told all of these activists is, I’m happy for [those cases] not to get booked. Anything that addresses that objective, I’m going to support and help make it happen. But they wanted a straight out, “I will never prosecute X.” And I don’t know, I just get hung up on the fact that, one, I take an oath [to see justice done], and two, that means that I’m not involved in the discussion of how this community addresses the problem [of drug offenses].
And it’s a real problem. There are neighborhoods that call the police because there’s open and obvious drug use. And so, you know, you’ve got to balance the competing public needs here. I don’t think you just say, “Okay, I don’t care. I mean, whatever arrests you make, I’m not going to do anything about it.” I think you have to be involved.
TM: Mike Ramos was killed after being stopped on suspicion of drug use. What are your thoughts about prosecuting those drug cases when it can potentially create situations where someone could be killed?
MM: I don’t think Mike Ramos is a very good example. That was a complaint called in by a person who observed him using drugs in her apartment parking lot and also reported that he had a gun. So he wasn’t stopped for that reason. So the facts that you’ve described don’t fit the known facts about the incident.
TM: My understanding was that there was a 911 call about Mike Ramos that said that the caller suspected him of using drugs in the parking lot—
TM: And then he was stopped by an officer who had received that call—
MM: He was parked in a parking lot of an apartment complex. A woman was upset because she observed him using drugs, smoking crack, whatever it was, I don’t know the drug. And she saw a gun. He had a gun. She repeatedly said he had a gun. [Ramos did not, in fact, have a gun on him or in his vehicle.] So that was a resident complaining about the drug use that she found offensive because her grandchildren lived there. There you see the direct competing problem, right? A citizen in this community objected to the behavior. So to me it exemplifies the problem that law enforcement faces.
TM: That problem ended up with him being killed. Is that an acceptable outcome for that situation?
MM: No, it’s not an acceptable outcome. But now you’re asking me to comment on the use of force. That is precisely the issue that is going to be before a grand jury, so I’m not going to do that.
TM: If you win the election, will that feel like a vote of confidence in the way you’ve handled these cases?
MM: It’ll be significant because it’ll say that you can’t buy this county’s DA office with over six hundred thousand dollars from an out-of-state PAC. [laughs] My hope is that there is a more thoughtful conversation about all of the different aspects of these situations. We’re citizens in a democracy. We’re supposed to be responsible for our own government. But that requires doing some homework. It requires being more knowledgeable than most of us take time to be.